The AFRICAP Participatory Scenario Workshops (PSWs) – a modeller’s musings

I joined the AFRICAP project in April as a crop modeller. When I was given the opportunity to go to the Participatory Scenario Workshops (or PSWs) I was thrilled as I’d never been anywhere in Africa before. To briefly introduce the PSWs for the uninitiated: stakeholders describe plausible scenarios of the food system in their country in 2050. Two comprehensive, independent and uncertain drivers of the food system are decided upon that are used to construct four scenarios for the future of the food system. These scenarios are used to help contextualise the project’s research and ultimately inform policy decisions. I went into the process curious and a little nervous. I’d never been to such an event and wasn’t entirely sure what my role would be, aside from representing the modelling dweebs of Theme B.

At the ungodly hour of 4am on Monday September 17th I awoke to catch a flight from Leeds, my final destination being Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Approximately 18 hours later we touched down in Dar. The Tanzania PSW was on the Thursday following the project’s launch in Tanzania the day before. This kick-off event consisted of an array of speeches, presentations and hand shakes (some of which featured modelling).

The Tanzania PSW was coordinated by Rob Bailey from Chatham House. He led the morning discussions with stakeholders on the social, technological, environmental, economic and political drivers of the Tanzanian food system. Following this initial plenary, groups were arranged for discussion to decide which drivers were most important, and critically which were also the most uncertain. Groups then reported back and voting took place to decide which were the top two drivers. The drivers chosen in Tanzania were climate risk and technological change. As with all the workshops, AFRICAP folks such as I were given the task of facilitating discussion of the scenarios.

At this point in proceedings I felt quietly pleased with life. This was probably something to do with my modelling perspective (climate risk is something that our models can say something concrete about), as well as my own views about the critical importance of climate change. I was not surprised by the choice of climate risk, but it certainly felt good to confirm that the PSWs could be used directly in conjunction with the modelling framework we’d been putting together for AFRICAP.

Following a modest intake of celebratory Kilimanjaros (team AFRICAP’s Tanzanian beer of choice) I flew to Lusaka, Zambia on the Saturday evening (flying via Zanzibar and Nairobi, much to the amusement of some on the team). I arrived late that night and spend the next day sleeping off a mild bug (no pun intended).

The Zambian AFRICAP launch and PSW took place over the next few days. The format was largely the same as in Tanzania, although Tim Benton would lead the remaining PSWs. The outcome of the Zambia PSW was also similar in that climate risk was the number one choice for stakeholders, with market connectivity completing the pair of drivers.

I returned home from my first PSW excursion on Friday 28th September a contented modeller. I was enthused enough by the scenarios process to attempt to lead a condensed PSW-style meeting with the climate impacts group back in Leeds. We discussed the future of the Yorkshire food system, with all present agreeing that rhubarb will always be of critical importance.

At the more sociable hour of 9:10pm on November 10th I was flying to South Africa for the third PSW. Delegates here chose climate risk (!) and land reform as their two critical uncertain drivers. We flew to Malawi on Tuesday 13th, and (surprise, surprise) climate risk and policy efficacy came out on top. During these two workshops I gradually perfected my “facilitation face” for the photographers present.

I was lucky enough to be the only member of the team to travel to all four PSWs. I learned a lot from all of the workshops, and from the first event in Tanzania I was quickly struck by the simplicity and utility of scenarios. Being a modeller I’m used to grappling with uncertainty, but the idea of characterising the uncertainties surrounding the future of the food system strikes me as incredibly challenging. All of a sudden, here was a framework that did just that. It’s simplicity, is, of course, both a strength and a weakness – some present across the PSWs lamented the lack of a third (or fourth… or fifth!) driver – but most seemed to agree that the process was helpful, informative and rewarding. As far as I was concerned it was a bonus that the critical drivers chosen map nicely onto our modelling framework. But more on that (thrilling) story later.

On November 17th, I was back in Leeds. And I slept.